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Helen Ofield, president
Lemon Grove Historical Society

Driving the Snakes Out of Lemon Grove

by Helen Ofield

By New Year’s Day, 1976, after a year-long struggle to clear the path toward cityhood, Lemon Grove was still in the trenches, essentially friendless in the political arena, but not lacking in guts. We didn’t have St. Patrick to drive the snakes out of the ‘Grove, but the town was used to going it alone—and it had a dream.

We Wuz Robbed: Lemon Grove yearned to become a Bicentennial City and labored to get on the June 8, 1976 ballot. Remember that year? The USA turned 200 and the whole country was awash in flags, parades and George Washington bumper stickers.

Polling showed a win was assured. That meant we’d officially become a city on July 4, 1976 on the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Wow. Our Big Lemon was already a Fourth of July baby, dating from 1928.

So who robbed us? Yup, pals, it was La Mesa. They wanted to annex 1.17 square miles of the unincorporated Vista La Mesa neighborhood — an area designated to become part of the new City of Lemon Grove.

La Mesa and San Diego County allegedly had a “gentleman’s agreement” that La Mesa would claim Vista La Mesa because, according to La Mesa mayor Paul Fordem, “Route 94 is a natural boundary line.”

But Lemon Grove had its own St. Patrick in the person of Mike Gotch. Remember Mike? Super nice guy. He was assistant director of LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) and said LAFCO responded to “the will of the people” by voting to give the ‘Grove the unincorporated acreage north of 94 because it was in the new Lemon Grove Fire Protection District.

How come Lemon Grove was a new fire district? Answer: Because the county bailed. It used to provide fire protection through the U. S. Forestry Service, but didn’t want the cost or responsibility any longer.

Under State law, it was illegal to have unincorporated Vista La Mesa with no fire protection stuck in between two incorporated cities. It had to belong to La Mesa or soon-to-be-incorporated Lemon Grove.

La Mesa, cheesed to the max, hung tough. They voted early in 1976 to prevent our cityhood effort from getting on the ballot until it got control of Vista La Mesa.

Mike Gotch was shocked, shocked. He protested La Mesa’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude. He said LAFCO had followed the people’s bidding: Vista La Mesa wanted to stay in Lemon Grove. Gotch protested La Mesa’s 11th hour assassination of Lemon Grove’s election bid. He protested the County’s failure to take the dispute to its February meeting when the issue might have been resolved in time for the June ballot.

What a guy!

Stay with us, dear readers, as we plow through the weeds, and the snakes.

Half a Million Bucks: Thanks to the above skulduggery, Lemon Grove lost $500,000 in sales, liquor, gas and other local taxes that a new city could collect for its first fiscal year and not give back to the state. So, who got the dough? Why, the county. Does that pass the smell test?

County Supervisor Dick Brown had endorsed cityhood for Lemon Grove. He admitted the supervisors had dropped the ball in not defending the town after the LAFCO decision—and Brown certainly wasn’t on his toes. Of course, he was a lame duck not running for re-election.

As the Lemon Grove Review noted, “Perhaps supervisors don’t think an area with 23,500 residents is that important.”

One Good Guy: La Mesa City Councilman George Bailey was the only one of five to vote against his city’s move to keep Lemon Grove off the June ballot. Bailey warned that La Mesa’s excessive demands for land would net them little or nothing.

La Mesa wanted not only Vista La Mesa, but Rolando Knolls, an unincorporated area coveted by San Diego. And there was the American Homes-Blossom Lane-Highlands area of Spring Valley up for grabs.

“You’ll lose everything,” warned Bailey.

And that’s what happened, sort of. Vista La Mesa went to La Mesa, but stayed in the Lemon Grove School District. Blossom Lane stayed in Lemon Grove. Rolando Knolls stayed in San Diego. American Homes stayed in Spring Valley.

As Bailey and Gotch had predicted, La Mesa got barely a square mile and plenty of bad blood that lingered for years. Bailey later ran for supervisor and won. Lemon Grove went for him two to one. Mike Gotch had a distinguished career in state government. He died of cancer in 2008. But the Mike Gotch Memorial Bridge is why you can ride your bike from Pacific Beach Drive to Mission Bay Drive.

And gutsy little Lemon Grove? We became California’s 414th city a year later — better late than never. We missed the Bicentennial, but we got a City, a historical society, an expanded school district, freeway access, a Community Center, a Senior Center and lots of other great stuff.

When life hands you lemons, show ‘em what you’re made of! Fight the good fight! The best is always yet to come!

Helen Ofield
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Helen Ofield

Helen M. Ofield is the president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society. She spearheaded the saving of Lemon Grove's first church (built 1897) and its adaptive reuse as the Parsonage Museum of Lemon Grove, and the saving of the H. Lee House (built 1928) and its adaptive reuse as the city's cultural center. Her civic history, Images of America: Lemon Grove (Arcadia 2010) includes photographic content advised by Pete Smith. She is an award-winning writer-producer for national and local film and television, as well as for print and online news media, a member of the San Diego County Historic Site Board and the Society of Professional Journalists, and a long-time historic preservationist.
Helen Ofield
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